Happy Feet As exuberant as they are accurate, the three Argentine-born Gramatica brothers celebrate the American dream with their every kick

April 20, 2003

The Super Bowl was nearly over, darkness falling over San Diego,
when one brother found the other on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers'
jubilant sideline. Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica was wearing a
freshly minted championship cap, ringlets of sweaty, dark brown
hair spilling out the sides. Bill Gramatica, also a kicker, for
the Arizona Cardinals, but on this day a commentator for ESPN
International's Spanish-speaking audience, was holding a
microphone, preparing to interview his older brother. It was a
wildly improbable moment, freighted with nearly two decades of
family history.

Martin's journey to the pinnacle of American football had taken
him--and his parents and siblings--from his native Argentina to
Miami to upstate New York to a small town among the orange groves
of south central Florida, where Martin (pronounced mar-TEEN),
Bill and youngest brother Santiago transferred their soccer
skills to the football field by kicking a bloated ball over
jury-rigged goalposts in a cow pasture behind their home. All
three of them went on to earn football scholarships, and now
Martin had kicked two field goals in the biggest game of all.
Once he found Martin on the sideline after Tampa Bay's 48-21 win
over the Oakland Raiders, Bill embraced his brother and told him
that the entire family loved him and was proud of him. For
Martin, the rest is a blur.

"It's all so hard to describe," he says, relaxing last month at
his father's ranch in Dunnellon, Fla. "We were little boys in
Argentina who wanted to be soccer players. We had dreams, but not
dreams like this. I'm asking myself now, 'Why me? Why has this
all happened to my family?'"

It has happened to the 5'8", 170-pound Martin, 27, not only
because he is the big brother in the first family of
placekickers--leading the Gramaticas where the Gogolaks (Pete and
Charlie), the Bahrs (Chris and Matt) and the Zendejases (Tony and
Martin and their cousins Luis, Max and Joaquin) walked before
them--but also because he possesses one of the most reliable legs
in the NFL. In 2002, his fourth year as a pro, he made 32 of 39
field goal attempts during the regular season and frequently
bailed out the Bucs' inconsistent offense. Twice in victories he
accounted for all of Tampa Bay's points. In a 12-9 road win over
the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 27, he followed a 32-yard field
goal with fourth-quarter boots of 52, 53 and 47 yards. "A classic
Gramatica game," says Bucs coach Jon Gruden. On Dec. 29, against
the Bears in Chicago, Martin was 5 for 5 in a 15-0 victory that
clinched a first-round playoff bye.

Martin missed just once in six postseason tries, and both of his
Super Bowl field goals--from 31 and 43 yards--came early, when
the game was still close. "After that, all I did was kick extra
points the rest of the night," he says. "But I always say, I'd
rather kick extra points than field goals any day."

Remarkably, Martin helped the Bucs win a title while kicking with
two hernias that weren't discovered until a routine team physical
on the day after the Super Bowl. He had surgery four days later.
"I had no idea," he says. "My groin was bothering me all year,
but two hernias?"

Bill, meanwhile, had a solid season in his second year with the
struggling Cardinals, converting 15 of 21 field goal attempts,
including a 42-yarder in overtime against the Detroit Lions on
Dec. 8 that halted Arizona's six-game free fall after a 4-2
start. Santiago, a sophomore at South Florida, made good on 16 of
21 tries, with a long of 41 yards, for a fledgling Division I-A
program that went 9-2.

There are subtle differences in the brothers' styles. Bill, 24,
is 5'10" and 190 pounds, with a naturally powerful leg. Of the
three, he is the only left-footed kicker, the by-product of being
moved to left wing on the boys' soccer team as a youth. The
smaller, more slender Martin relies on leg speed and rhythm to
generate his power. "Big leg in a little body," says Joe
Marciano, Tampa Bay's special teams coach in Martin's first three
seasons. "He's tiny, but he hits the ball with a Morten
Andersen-type boom!" Santiago, 20, nearly six feet tall yet
slender (175 pounds), is a hybrid of his brothers, not as strong
as Bill, not as quick as Martin.

All of them rely on instinct and feel, using techniques they
started learning on the soccer field as soon as they could walk.
"None of us has ever had a kicking coach," says Bill. "None of us
ever will." They talk several times a day by cellphone, helping
each other manage the uncommon stress of kicking footballs. "You
make it or you miss it," says Martin. "It's tough. You think
about it all week. On Monday and Tuesday, I'm fine. Then it
builds. By Saturday, I'm feeling it."

And when the balls pass through the uprights, the Gramaticas are
not merely kickers. They are performance artists behind tiny face
masks, punctuating their kicks with operatic celebrations, like
the Argentine soccer heroes they grew up watching. At Kansas
State, where Martin set a school record with 349 points over four
seasons, he celebrated every one of his 54 field goals and 187
extra points as if it were the last kick of his life. He has
carried that emotion into the NFL--Tampa Tribune photographer
David Kadlubowski won an award for a picture of Martin
celebrating wildly during a 2001 preseason game--and Bill has
done likewise. "I know there are a lot of guys who think it's
ridiculous, all the celebrations they do," says Denver Broncos
kicker Jason Elam, "but I like watching them. You've got to enjoy
your job."

There was minimal backlash until Dec. 15, 2001, when Bill nailed
a 42-yarder against the New York Giants, leaped into the air and
tore his right ACL upon landing. The incident secured him a place
in NFL blooper videotapes and left Bill riddled with holes from
talk-radio potshots. Then, last November, before the Bucs played
Carolina, Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun ripped Martin for his
frequent histrionics. "The guy needs to act like he's been there
before," said Sauerbrun. "He's making other kickers look bad."

The Gramaticas are befuddled by the criticism. "To understand,"
says Bill, "people have to know who we are." This is who they
are: the embodiment of the purest American dream, an immigrant
family that embraced its opportunity, worked tirelessly and
succeeded. In October 1984, 37-year-old William Gramatica flew
from Buenos Aires to Miami and one month later sent for his wife,
Laura, and their three sons, ages 22 months to nine years. It was
a brave and difficult move. William, a veterinarian whose
grandfather had emigrated from Italy to Argentina, and Laura, a
gymnastics teacher, had raised their family in San Isidro, near
Buenos Aires, and on a farm in the distant hills of Chaco, more
than 800 miles away. When Martin was born, he was outfitted in
the blue-and-yellow of the Boca Juniors, the professional soccer
side that is the New York Yankees of Argentina and to whom the
family was devoted. However, the depressed Argentine economy
forced the Gramaticas to make a choice, and they left, William
says in accented English, "because the United States is the
greatest country in the world."

The family lived briefly in South Florida before William found
work in his specialty--transplanting embryos into cattle for
breeders--near Oneonta, N.Y., 200 miles northwest of New York
City. There, they watched on television as Diego Maradona scored
his notorious "hand of God" goal, plus one other, to lead
Argentina past England in the quarterfinals en route to the 1986
World Cup title. Late that year, however, weary of cold weather
and a homogeneous culture, the Gramaticas moved back to Florida,
to La Belle, a town of 4,210 near the western edge of Lake
Okeechobee. They eventually settled into a plantation-style house
surrounded by grassy fields on the outskirts of town and opened
Polo Restaurant in the village, serving pizza and pasta as well
as steak and barbecue, reflecting both their Italian and
Argentine roots.

Mom and Dad cooked; the boys cleaned, waited and bused tables.
The townsfolk, a stew of natives and transients attached to the
citrus industry, flocked to Polo. "It became like a small-town
diner, where the village would gather," says Doyle Bedingfield, a
high school classmate of Bill's. "When you walked in, it was like
you were at the Gramaticas' dinner table and their mom would say,
'Let me cook you something.'"

Dad mowed the grass short at the back of the family's property,
constructed goals and joined his boys in spirited games of
two-on-two soccer. Because La Belle had no youth soccer program
(and no high school team), Martin and Bill played on a travel
team based in Fort Myers, 30 miles away. Martin, quick and adroit
with his feet, was good enough that in the winter of his junior
year, 1992-93, he spent a month practicing with Necaxa, a
professional team, in Mexico City.

That was the blueprint for his future until the spring, when
another suitor came calling. "Everybody in town knew about the
Gramatica boys, that they were good soccer players and good
athletes," says La Belle High football coach Ron Dunbar. He
begged Martin and Bill, who was a freshman, to come to spring
practice and kick. William wouldn't allow it, fearing what he had
seen of football on television. But after the boys kicked
informally one afternoon, Dunbar drove straight to Polo and told
William, "You have to let them kick. They can win a scholarship.
They can be in the NFL someday."

Instantly, William threw himself into his boys' football careers
with the same passion he had devoted to soccer. Beyond the wire
fence at the back of the property, he built a narrow goalpost out
of white PVC piping. He helped the boys strengthen their
quadriceps by having them lift cinder blocks with their feet
(which they stuck through the holes in the blocks). And the boys
kicked and kicked. They kicked from the low-cut grass into the
knee-high pasture grass and back. They kicked in
rainstorms--"Because it might be raining in a game someday," says
Bill--and wind. They kicked over the scraggly myrtle bush that
rose from the pasture. They kicked from impossible angles and
played a placekicking version of H-O-R-S-E with their only
football until it was puffy and misshapen.

Martin kicked in high school only as a senior, in the fall of
1993, hitting 8 of 12 field goals, including a 37-yarder to beat
Naples High, a much larger school. The following spring, long
after most colleges had filled their scholarship allotments,
Kansas State defensive assistant Jim Leavitt went south in search
of a kicker. "I just wanted somebody who could kick off deep and
give my defense field position," says Leavitt. He called a coach
in Naples, who directed him to La Belle. Leavitt watched tape of
Martin and enticed him to visit Kansas State. Michigan State and
Notre Dame still had interest, but Leavitt persuaded Wildcats
coach Bill Snyder to offer Gramatica a scholarship before the
youngster left Manhattan.

Bill followed Martin at La Belle High and played on teams that
won 24 games in two years. In 1994, his junior season, he kicked
a 47-yard field goal with four seconds to play, giving La Belle a
15-14 win over Pahokee, a powerhouse that the Cowboys had never
beaten. "Bill followed the kick all the way to the goal line and
slid across the end zone on his knees," recalls Bedingfield.

Bill signed with Florida State, but he left in October 1997,
after coach Bobby Bowden recruited Sebastian Janikowski, an
experience that left the Gramatica family bitter. Bill
transferred to South Florida and in '99 moved into an apartment
with Martin, then a rookie whom the Bucs had taken in the third
round. It is a pattern with the Gramaticas: Nobody is left alone.
When Martin went to Kansas State, his parents spent months at a
time living with him in his small apartment. When Bill went to
Arizona as a fourth-round draft pick in 2001, Laura moved in with
him for the season, cooking his meals, brewing his favorite cafe
con leche (coffee with milk) and dropping him off every day at
practice, where he unabashedly kissed his mom goodbye in the
parking lot. "I'm not embarrassed by that," says Bill. "I'm
proud." Santiago has moved into Bill's old room in Martin's
house. William has shuttered Polo and started a cattle-breeding
business (Three Point Angus Ranch) in Dunnellon, which is a
90-minute drive from Tampa, compared with the three-hour haul
from La Belle.

The brothers are all together now, living in Tampa during the
NFL's off-season. They train in a garage attached to Martin's
house, lifting weights and boxing to build fitness and playing
soccer three nights a week with a team of teenagers, maintaining
their endurance and keeping in touch with the game that first
enticed them into sport in another time and another country.
Often they travel north to the farm and work with their father.
Santiago has resumed practicing with his college team, and this
week Bill will return to Phoenix, but the three will never be far
apart in spirit.

"The way my parents brought us up," says Santiago, "we know that
if you work, everything pays off." The emotions you see on the
field rise from this ethic, spilling directly from their souls.
"When you kick the ball and see it going straight," says Martin,
"it's just unbelievable." It is truly worth celebrating. The
kick. The family. The life.

Read Tim Layden's Viewpoint and Peter King's Monday Morning
Quarterback at si.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER AUTOMATIC Martin kicked a career-high 32 field goals last season and accounted for all the points in two wins as the Bucs won their first Super Bowl. COLOR PHOTO: MATT YORK/AP WILD SIDE Since injuring his knee while celebrating a kick in '01, Bill has toned down his act--but not by much. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (LEFT) ALL IN THE FAMILY Santiago (far left) and Martin have William to thank for getting their football careers started, and Laura has had a big hand in helping Bill get acclimated to life in the NFL.
COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL [See caption above]

They are NOT MERELY KICKERS. They are performance artists behind
face masks, punctuating their kicks with operatic celebrations.

As boys they kicked and kicked, from low-cut grass into knee-high
pasture and back, until their football was PUFFY AND MISSHAPEN.